Tuesday, March 11, 2014
The Associated Press
(Continued from page 1)
In this in Dec. 31, 2012 file photo, Rachel Schaefer of Denver smokes marijuana on the official opening night of Club 64, a marijuana-specific social club, where a New Year's Eve party was held, in Denver. According to new guidance being issued Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013 to federal prosecutors across the country, the federal government will not make it a priority to block marijuana legalization in Colorado or Washington or close down recreational marijuana stores, so long as the stores abide by state regulations. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
In this April 20, 2013 file photo, members of a crowd numbering tens of thousands smoke marijuana and listen to live music, at the Denver 420 pro-marijuana rally at Civic Center Park in Denver. The U.S. government said Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013 that the federal government will not make it a priority to block marijuana legalization in Colorado or Washington or close down recreational marijuana stores, so long as the stores abide by state regulations. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)
Following the votes in Colorado and Washington last year, Attorney General Eric Holder launched a review of marijuana enforcement policy that included an examination of the two states. The issue was whether they should be blocked from operating marijuana markets on the grounds that actively regulating an illegal substance conflicts with federal drug law that bans it.
Peter Bensinger, a former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the conflict between federal and state law is clear and can't be reconciled. Federal law is paramount, and Holder is "not only abandoning the law, he's breaking the law. He's not only shirking his duty, he's not living up to his oath of office," Bensinger said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R- Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and cochairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, called the administration's decision the latest example of selective law enforcement.
"The administration is now effectively instructing law enforcement not to prioritize the prosecution of the large-scale distribution and sale of marijuana in certain states," Grassley said late Thursday. "Apprehending and prosecuting illegal drug traffickers should always be a priority for the Department of Justice."
Last December, President Barack Obama said it doesn't make sense for the federal government to go after recreational drug users in a state that has legalized marijuana. Last week, the White House said that prosecution of drug traffickers remains an important priority.
A Pew Research Center poll in March found that 60 percent of Americans think the federal government shouldn't enforce federal anti-marijuana laws in states where its use has been approved. Younger people, who tend to vote more Democratic, are especially prone to that view. But opponents are worried these moves will lead to more use by young people. Colorado and Washington were states that helped re-elect Obama.
Advocates of medical marijuana were cautious about the new policy. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that effectively allow patients to access and use medical marijuana. Threats of criminal prosecution and asset forfeiture by U.S. attorneys have closed more than 600 dispensaries in California, Colorado and Washington over the past two years, said Americans for Safe Access, which advocates for safe and legal access to therapeutic cannabis.
Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project, the nation's largest marijuana policy organization, called the policy change "a major and historic step toward ending marijuana prohibition" and "a clear signal that states are free to determine their own policies."
Kevin Sabet, the director of Project Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an anti-legalization group, predicted the new Justice Department policy will accelerate a national discussion about legalization because people will see its harms — including more drugged driving and higher high school dropout rates.
Kristi Kelly, a co-founder of three medical marijuana shops near Denver, said the Justice Department's action is a step in the right direction.
"We've been operating in a gray area for a long time. We're looking for some sort of concrete assurances that this industry is viable," she said.
A national trade group, the National Cannabis Industry Association, said it hopes steps will be taken to allow marijuana establishments access to banking services. Federally insured banks are barred from taking money from marijuana businesses because the drug is still banned by the federal government.